Broadening his band
“It’s not anybody’s damn business what I think about what Jesse said,” Goodmon says. “I agreed with everything my grandfather wanted to do — because I worked for him.” On this autumn afternoon, he’s trying hard not to say what he really thinks. As the sun lights pink blooms ablaze in the azalea garden his grandfather planted, he twists a wood coffee stirrer in his left hand. Dressed business casual, with cuff links shaped like bulls (as in Durham Bulls, his minor-league baseball team), he stretches his trim, 6-foot-2 frame in a metal patio chair shaded by a big oak. As he does most afternoons, he had cut through the basement of WRAL, past the garbage dumpsters, to buy an iced soy latte from the Cup A Joe café next door to the station and adjoining company headquarters. “Jesse Helms was a friend of mine. Here he goes to the Senate, and I’m running the station. In 30 years, he didn’t complain to me about coverage on WRAL. He wouldn’t do that. I respect him for that. There couldn’t have been anybody any nicer than Jesse Helms.” After a pause, he adds, “I certainly didn’t agree with everything he had to say.” Finally, he says, “It is very true that I wouldn’t have run those editorials.”
A Republican most his life, Goodmon, 71, wound up a liberal, a label he’s not entirely comfortable with — “I hate those damn names” — and considers something of an occupational hazard. “If you are involved in local broadcasting, you see everything and you understand it. There are so many people who see things in black and white, and they are in the middle. Life is not that simple.” For decades, he kept a low profile as a businessman while supporting causes some of his acquaintances considered suspect, such as helping drug addicts and supporting the NAACP. He refrained from talking publicly about politics. Then, about five years ago, his attitude changed with the political landscape. The ascendancy of conservative Republicans in the General Assembly, he says, led to “dismantling the work of the past 30 to 35 years” in public education and race relations. In the early 1990s, he had gotten a firsthand look at deficiencies in North Carolina’s public schools as a leader of Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt’s push for Smart Start. As a Republican CEO, he represented support from the business community, helping win legislative funding for an early-childhood education program that became a national model. “It was the first time that I had some sense of him playing a role outside of being a television executive,” says Ferrel Guillory, who as political writer for The News & Observer chronicled the national ascent of Helms in the 1970s. Now director of the Program on Public Life at UNC Chapel Hill’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, he has worked with Goodmon on projects in the Catholic Diocese of Raleigh. “Over time, he’s gotten increasingly interested in social and political issues.”
In 2010, Goodmon publicly criticized the Wake County school board’s Republican majority for ditching diversity in deciding where students attend school, and he and his wife, Barbara, changed their voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated. “I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. He began speaking out against insufficient funding for public schools and efforts to cut corporate income taxes to groups such as Leadership Triangle, of which he’s chairman emeritus, and the Martin Luther King Day prayer breakfast his company sponsors. “When people ask me to talk, they worry about what I’m going to say. I’ve decided that nobody [else] will say it.” During an interview for this story, he refers, without naming names, to Republicans who voted to cut taxes as those “nut cases in the legislature.” In recruiting businesses to the historic district in downtown Durham that Capitol Broadcasting redeveloped, he says, “Nobody has ever asked me about the corporate income-tax rate. They ask about the school system, the infrastructure, what it’s going to be like for my employees to live here.”
As a media mogul whose empire has pushed beyond the bounds of broadcasting deep into the digital realm and whose influence extends well past the confines of the state capital, he’s a popular target of conservatives. “I don’t believe he is a benevolent media owner,” says Francis De Luca, president of the Raleigh-based Civitas Institute. “He supports liberal organizations. He considers conservatives in the legislature to be flat-Earthers. He is dismissive of their opinions.” The A.J. Fletcher Foundation, a family philanthropy, gave $350,000 in 2012 to the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center. Chris Fitzsimon, director of the center’s NC Policy Watch news outlet, delivers a daily commentary on WRAL-FM radio, harkening back to the Helms era — except for its slant. “The conservatives say, ‘This proves they are a bunch of liberals,’” Goodmon says. “OK, we are a bunch of liberals.” But what’s liberal, he asks, about wanting to have good schools and not wanting them taught by some of the nation’s poorest-paid teachers? “We need to make appropriate investments to get the results. That is a pro-business conservative notion.”
That’s how he describes himself: a pro-business capitalist. “I’m not going to tell you that I don’t like to make money,” he says. “We make a lot of money.” He won’t say how much, declining to disclose the privately owned company’s profit or revenue. And here is a key to why he is who and what he is: He doesn’t have to answer to anyone. “As a local company, we can do anything we want to, whenever we want to do it. There is no board meeting in Philadelphia. The voting stock is right here,” he says, referring to himself. He controls 99% of those shares, which he plans to give to sons Jimmy, 38, and Michael, 35, “before Jimmy is 40.” The elder son will get voting control. “One person,” their father says, “has to be in charge.”
As has he, both of Goodmon’s sons have spent their careers in the family business. When his dad retires, Jimmy will succeed him as president and CEO and Michael will become executive vice president. Both are on Capitol Broadcasting’s board of directors and executive committee. Both have undergraduate degrees from Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Jimmy has an MBA from UNC Chapel Hill; Michael has a master’s in trust and investment management from Campbell University. Jimmy is vice president of the New Media Group, where he’s in charge of nontraditional outlets such as WRAL.com and of acquisitions and startups. He inherited his dad’s fascination with technology and, like him, hung out at the TV station as a kid and worked there during summers as a teenager. Michael wasn’t attracted to broadcasting. As vice president of real estate, he manages the American Tobacco Historic District in Durham and is developing Rocky Mount Brewmill, turning an abandoned textile mill in that city into an incubator for craft-beer brewers. “It’s a little crazy, which is perfect for us,” Michael says. “File this under the category of fun.” His father adds, “It has really worked out well — Jimmy with a natural inclination for broadcasting and new media and Michael over there in Durham running real estate.”
“We are all risk-takers,” Michael says. “We all have different traits and different perspectives, but that is one trait we share.” Take, for example, his dad’s willingness in 1996 to spend money for WRAL-TV to be the first commercial television station in the nation to broadcast a high-definition signal in an experiment authorized by the Federal Communications Commission. “I really like the notion of first to market,” Goodmon says. “You can mess up, but I’d rather mess up than be way behind. Would you watch sports if it weren’t in HD? Now you can see the puck in hockey. You can see things you couldn’t before.” In one area — putting local news online — Goodmon did have to play catch up. The News & Observer, the Raleigh daily, launched its NandO.net site in 1994, beating The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and other major newspapers to the Web. It also beat Capitol Broadcasting, which introduced what is now WRAL.com two years later.
NandO.net is gone — absorbed into the operations of Sacramento, Calif.-based McClatchy Co., the nation’s third-largest newspaper chain, after it purchased The News and Observer Publishing Co. in 1995 — and WRAL.com is now far and away the most popular website in the Raleigh-Durham market. It attracted 56.1% of the market’s adults in May-July 2013, compared with 33% for newsobserver.com and 23.4% for ABC11.com, according to the latest tally by the The Media Audit, a survey by Houston-based International Demographics Inc. “It is most impressive and one of the strongest TV websites I’ve seen in all of the Southeast,” says Danita Cave, The Media Audit’s market manager for that region. “It dominates all other local websites in so many targets.” Company acquisitions and investments have focused on online and digital businesses such as WRAL TechWire.
As president of the Durham Chamber of Commerce from 1997 to 2005, Tom White worked with Goodmon in the broadcaster’s riskiest investment: redeveloping a collection of abandoned, dilapidated tobacco buildings downtown and recruiting tenants, including Duke University, to put employees in them. More than 4,000 now work in the historic district. “His attitude is, ‘Why not?’” says White, now executive director of the Economic Development Partnership office at N.C. State University in Raleigh. “He not only had vision, he had courage. He did the tougher stuff. He is a techie who likes to be first.” Capitol Broadcasting ventured into the city in 1990 with the $4 million acquisition of the Durham Bulls. That didn’t turn out as Goodmon had planned. He wanted to move the team from the cramped, deteriorating ballpark made famous in the movie Bull Durham to property near Raleigh-Durham International Airport, where it would anchor a sports complex called Triangle Central Park. Goodmon hoped for regional support for the park after the Triangle hosted the U.S. Olympics Festival in 1987. But rivalries between Raleigh and Durham returned, leading to “World War III,” as he put it, and an outcome he had not expected. City leaders wanted to keep the team in town, but in a countywide referendum in 1990 voters turned down issuing $11 million in general-obligation bonds to finance a new ballpark. Two years later, the City Council proceeded anyway, using financing that didn’t require voter approval. Opponents were outraged.
Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995. To complement it, Capitol Broadcasting has built three office buildings — Diamond View I, II and III — overlooking the ballpark. In 2002, the A.J. Fletcher Foundation bought the adjacent complex of deteriorating brick factories that once made Lucky Strike and other cigarettes. Goodmon wouldn’t say how much it paid for the property, but the American Tobacco Historic District website says Capitol Broadcasting invested more than $200 million to renovate the buildings into an office-entertainment-residential complex. It sparked downtown’s resurgence as a hub for business startups, offices, residences and the Durham Performing Arts Center. All of the company’s properties in the district are generating positive cash flow, Michael says, with commercial and residential occupancy at 98-99%. An offshoot is American Underground, a hub for entrepreneurs and startups with locations in the historic district, as well as on Main Street in Durham and Fayetteville Street in Raleigh. It has run out of room for new tenants, so it’s taking two more floors of office space on Main Street. And this year, the baseball team broke its single-season record for paid attendance, selling 533,033 tickets, and won the International League South Division for the second straight year.
Downtown redevelopment “has exceeded everyone’s wildest dreams,” says Tallman Trask III, chief financial officer of Duke University, which committed to rent space in the district as part of Goodmon’s revitalization plan. It occupies about 200,000 of the complex’s approximately 1 million square feet. Goodmon “had the financial wherewithal and the financial smarts to do it,” Trask says. Or as the man himself explains it, “This is something I wanted my boys to know: You got to play with the cards that you are dealt. I was dealt a baseball team in downtown Durham.”
He grew up in Raleigh but was born in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1943. He doesn’t know why his mother, the former Betty Lou Fletcher, had traveled there. She divorced his father, whom he never knew, and married Ray Goodmon, who adopted her son. He remembers catching the technology bug as a child when he visited his grandfather and recorded a national political convention with a device that used silver wire before the advent of tape for recording. “I have what I call a boyish enthusiasm for technology. I still think that it is amazing that we can send television signals through the air.” After finishing high school in 1961, he spent three years at Duke studying electrical engineering. It was “the wrong major — big time,” he says. “I didn’t want to know how everything worked. I just wanted to know what it did.” So he quit college to join the Navy. Stationed in Memphis, Tenn., he met a nurse named Barbara Lyons, married her and brought her back to Raleigh. She was a Catholic; he became a convert. Many credit — or blame — her with influencing his political and social views.
He never shared those views with his grandfather. “At that point of my career, that was not on the top of my agenda. … It wasn’t a political environment I was working in. I was running a TV station. The politics of the time were not on my plate.” In 2000, three years before his death, Helms told the Congressional Record: “Many times he was covered with grease, many times he was bound to be tired, but Jim Goodmon was then, as he is today, a hard-charger. He concentrated on learning everything possible about the mysteries of keeping a television station on the air.” (Goodmon was an honorary pallbearer at Helms’ funeral.) In 1973, he moved from WRAL to the parent company as executive vice president and became president in 1975, succeeding Fred Fletcher, the founder’s oldest son. After his uncle retired, “my grandfather decided that I would have control of the company. He told me it was coming, but we never had any talks about why.” He became CEO in 1979, when his grandfather, then in his 90s, stepped down. Within a few weeks, A.J. Fletcher was dead.
As he prepares to cede control to his sons, Goodmon has put no legal restrictions on selling the company. That will be up to Jimmy, he says. “He will have to look at the situation and make the decision.” That isn’t a consideration, his sons say. “The company is our passion,” Michael says. “I can’t imagine working anywhere else or being anywhere else or doing anything else other than being here with my family.” Jimmy adds: “In whatever business we are in, I’m sure Michael and I will be together. We stick together.” (Their sister, Elizabeth Jordan, is a former teacher who lives in Greenville.) Goodmon, who will assume the title of chairman, plans to stay active with the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which gives about $3 million annually, with 2013 gifts of $250,000 to the Salvation Army and $140,000 to the UNC School of the Arts Foundation. Nearly $419,000 went to The Fletcher Academy, a school for students with learning challenges in Raleigh. Goodmon, his wife and their sons serve on the board of directors. Another priority, he says, will be trying to refocus the North Carolina Chamber on education.
He started slowing down a few years ago, cutting back his office hours and taking Fridays off. Goodmon had a heart attack 20 years ago while on a Saturday night walk with his wife and, later, surgery to treat an irregular heartbeat. A few months ago, he and Michael talked to each other on StoryCorps, the national oral-history project, which had stopped in Durham. The son asked his father what he wants his legacy to be. It has nothing to do with political labels. “You know, Michael, I think it’s that I worked hard. I like to say that if you and I get into some competitive situation, you might beat me, but you’re not going to outwork me. I have this notion that we’re here to do that.’’ Then hinting at an epitaph, he says, laughing: “Here lies Jim Goodmon. He really went after it.”
Chris Burritt is a Greensboro-based freelance writer.